5 facts about Beatles gear you may not have known
Even superfans might not have heard these interesting Beatle-releated gear facts before
The Beatles on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’. Image: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
The Fab Four might be one of the most heavily analysed and documented musicians who ever lived, but even for Beatles fans, there are some things about their gear you might not necessarily be sure on.
Here are five choice morsels of obscure Beatles gear knowledge to impress your fellow Beatles aficionados with next time you see them.
Beatles Memorabilia: It’s Getting Weird
While it should be no surprise that objects previously owned by the Beatles, particularly John Lennon, are the Mount Everest of memorabilia, its sometimes interesting to see just how deep Beatlemania can go, even beyond the realm of records, autographs, and instruments previously owned by the band. John Lennon’s Gibson J-160E remains one of the most expensive guitars ever sold at auction in 2015 to the tune of $2.4 million. Of course, a few guitars have surpassed it in the rankings since then, most notably, Kurt Cobain’s Fender Mustang and Martin acoustic, David Gilmour’s Black Strat, and very recently Eddie Van Halen’s Kramer used on Hot For Teacher.
Other weird pieces of memorabilia that have hit the market include a wooden spoon owned by John and Yoko. A letter titled A Matter of Pee from John Lennon to producer Phil Spector blaming The Who drummer Keith Moon and singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson for urinating on a console at an LA recording studio sold at auction in 2014 for £53,000, [or just over $88,000 dollars]. And perhaps strangest of all, John Lennon’s tooth… in 2011, a Canadian dentist named Michael Zuk paid $31,000 for a tooth belonging to John Lennon. According to the auction house, the tooth was given to Lennon’s housekeeper, who put it up for auction many years later. Even stranger is that Zuk has begun sequencing DNA from the tooth in hopes of cloning the singer at some point.
George Harrison: wannabe luthier
Of all the Beatles, George Harrison was the biggest gear-nerd, even from the very beginning. In an interview with NME in early 1963, the Beatles listed their ambitions. Lennon: “To write a musical”; McCartney: “To have my picture in the Dandy”; Harrison: “To design a guitar”; and Starr: “To be happy.” Harrison once told Beatles Monthly,
“I believe I love my guitar more than the others love theirs. For John and Paul, songwriting is pretty important and guitar playing is a means to an end. While they’re making up new tunes, I can thoroughly enjoy myself just doodling around with a guitar for a whole evening. I’m fascinated by new sounds I can get from different instruments I try out. I’m not sure that makes me particularly musical. Just call me a guitar fanatic instead, and I’ll be satisfied.”
The Mystery Of Paul McCartney’s Original Hofner
Paul McCartney’s image is synonymous with the Hofner 500/1 Violin Bass, which made it all the more shocking when his original bass was stolen. McCartney purchased the bass in 1962 in Hamburg, Germany, at the Steinway Musichaus. As Paul later recalled of the day and the bass:
“There was this bass which was quite cheap… I couldn’t afford a Fender; even then, they seemed to be about £100. All I could really afford was about £30, so for about £30 I found this Hofner violin bass. And to me it seemed like, because I was left-handed, it looked less daft because it was symmetrical. Didn’t look as bad as a cutaway which was the wrong way. So I got into that.”
Paul would use this bass from his pre-fame days in the Cavern Club all the way through the height of Beatlemania. The bass can be heard on most of The Beatles’ earliest hits. He eventually got another Hofner directly from the company, which he would prefer to use in the coming years.
Despite this new 500/1, the Hamburg Hofner, which had been extensively refinished, remained in use as a backup into 1969, when it was allegedly stolen out of a closet during the Let It Be sessions at Abbey Road studios, along with several other Beatles guitars, possibly including Harrison’s 1965 Fireglo Rickenbacker 360/12 with checkerboard binding [although some accounts of this guitar claim it was stolen in 1966].
Unlike most instruments that are stolen, and kept hidden, according to Philip Norman, the author of Paul McCartney: The Life, there is a person in Ottawa Canada who identified themselves only as “The Keeper” who claims to have the iconic instrument. This information was brought to McCartney’s attention in 2015 and he has reportedly been quite skeptical of pursuing it.
Lennon’s First Guitar
The most popular story about John Lennon’s first guitar states that it was a guitar that his aunt Mimi bought for him for 17 quid, however Andy Babiuk, in the book Beatles Gear does a great job of disproving this. According to his research, Lennon’s first guitar was a Gallotone Champion ¾ scale flat-top acoustic guitar that he ordered from a newspaper. A 1964 interview with Lennon seems to back this story and add some details – the guitar was bought for ten quid and the ad was in Renville magazine. Furthermore, the guitar model claimed in ads to be “guaranteed not to split”.
Based on the preponderance of credible evidence, we can conclude that the Gallotone Champion was Lennon’s first guitar [although his aunt Mimi did buy him one for 17 quid later on]. Interestingly enough, the Gallotone guitars were built in Jacobs, South Africa at the time.
It is believed that the Gallotone was sold at a Sotheby’s Auction in 1999 for the sum of $224,000. At the time, it was just a guitar that Aunt Mimi had at her house after Lennon’s passing that she gave away to be auctioned off for charity. But the distinction of it being Lennon’s FIRST guitar would most likely cause a massive increase in its value today.
The Beatles & Fender Guitars
The Beatles didn’t use Fender guitars until 1965 – halfway through their career. By that point they had already recorded four [and a half] albums. This was allegedly done to distinguish themselves from another English band – The Shadows, featuring guitarist Hank Marvin.
An endorsement from The Beatles would have been a massive marketing win for any brand. The Beatles’ use of the Epiphone Casino propelled the guitar to massive global sales, surpassing the Gibson equivalent, the ES-330, during Beatlemania.
John and George both bought Strats to use in the studio in 1965 and McCartney bought an Esquire in 1967 (which he would use for the solo of Good Morning, Good Morning), but in public performances the band stuck staunchly to what they were famous for – Hofners, Rickys, Gretsches and Casinos.
In 1968 Fender’s Don Randall went all out in his attempt to get the Beatles to publicly play Fender gear, supplying the band with instruments (including a Bass VI), amps and even a PA system.
The gear would find its way into the backline (as seen prominently on the Get Back documentary), but Lennon was still pretty wedded to his Casino and Paul to his Hofner. George was a different story, however, making good use of his painted ‘Rocky’ Strat throughout the sessions and memorably using his Rosewood Telecaster prototype for that fateful final rooftop gig in January 1969.
That Harrison gave the guitar away later that year has lead to some debate over whether Harrison actually liked the guitar or not, but he liked it enough to use it in the studio and for one last live performance, and for that reason alone Fender will always have a special place in Beatles lore.